As of today, Groove Coaster is the 25th most popular app on the iPad App Store. That’s unacceptable. Like most apps that rise to the top of the charts, it takes a huge groundswell of support and word-of-mouth. Getting to #25 is great, but Groove Coaster deserves more. It should be trending on Twitter and Facebook and getting mainstream coverage (edit: as I was writing this review, the mainstream has already caught on) for its fantastic gameplay, psychedelic retro visuals, and eclectic music. I’m even fine with Justin Bieber talking about the game on whatever show he might be on.
So why do I sound like a corporate shill expounding the gospel of a music game that essentially just asks you to tap, hold, and occasionally flick? Because Groove Coaster is one the best games to ever hit the App Store.
As a gaming device, the iPad and the rest of the iFamily work best when things are kept simple. When developers try to shoehorn a console or PC experience into a touchscreen, the results are often disastrous, shallow, or inspire people to buy $100 controllers. Groove Coaster could have easily fallen into the same trap because it borrows a lot of elements from other popular (console) music games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band.
Like most music games, you follow a highway of notes that ask you to perform a simple tap to produce a sound that goes along with the rhythm of the track. Mess up a tap and the result is often a sound unpleasant to the ears or just eerie silence, not unlike every other music game out there. The vector visuals – which borrow liberally from the aesthetic of Space Invaders: Infinity Gene (appropriate since Infinity Gene creator Reisuke Ishida) with a hint of Rez – are very obtuse and feel dream-like to the point where anybody watching you would think you were just staring at a visualizer rather than playing a game. And much like Rez, the digital scenery and the beauty of it elicits a emotional response that is uncommon in gaming.
Where Groove Coaster succeeds is in its sublime ease. Instead of forcing you to tap at the exact locations of the notes and subsequently obscure the screen (a big sticking point for the massively underappreciated Elite Beat Agents for the DS), you can tap anywhere and it will register as a hit if done correctly. The same rule applies for longer trailing notes that require you to hold the screen or rapidly tap as much as you can. This allows you to keep an eye on the next note without feeling like your fingers get in the way.
And you would hate it if you missed out on the action because as you progress and your sense of the rhythm gets acclimated to the type of music in Groove Coaster, the visuals respond accordingly. Thanks to multiple avatars and “skins” that add more effects on the screen, the Coaster part of the game’s title really comes to fruition. As your progress, the highway moves in all sorts of directions, much like the way Audiosurf makes each level different. The undulations of the highway move congruently to the musical track being played. So imagine my surprise when one of the levels pans out after your finish and the highway forms a Space Invaders ship.
With perks like more visual effects and avatars with different abilities that unlock – very similarly to Infinity Gene – as you achieve higher scores, there is plenty of reason to come back for more. At 99 cents (there will be a price increase in a few days) with the ability to purchase additional tracks now and possibly in the future, Groove Coaster is setting up for a long run at the top of the App Store. But we have to do our part in keeping it there and not letting the ride end.
For more retro gaming news and general babble, check out some of my older stuff. I also have a Twitter feed (@ezyville) you can follow and a podcast that I yap on with fellow Examiner Ash Paulsen.